Private Property Theory

Land, Private Property, and Rent

The Rise of Private Property in Land


Private Property Theory

The lush years of the age of commerce and industry have helped to dull man's mind to the importance of land because so few members of the modern industrial state are concerned di­rectly with it. With the extensive use of rubber, iron, coal, oil, and water power, land has taken on added significance until today the affairs of the world are frequently described in terms of land use and land control. The term "Geopolitics" is just a new way of expressing an old truth which somehow in the rush of getting and spending got pushed into a dark corner, to be rediscovered by people to whom living space and raw materials for industry had become a problem.

The value of land itself has been generally assumed; and, except for eulogies by poets and philosophers, literature on the subject has been scant until recently. It is the property relations which surround land with which men have been concerned. Among primitive tribes when the gathering of berries, roots, and herbs, or hunting and fishing was the means of existence no one worried about ownership. The mobility of these tribesmen ren­dered private ownership of land a matter of indifference. The temporary use of it was all that was desired. Tribal wars, of course, were fought to retain use privileges of a hunting ground, but no individual sought title to a particular area. Confusion has resulted innumerable times when primitive tribesmen have sold a use title to land which the civilized recipient accepted as an individual property right. In the pastoral stages of economic development land continued as communal holdings, since extensive rather than intensive use was required. Circumstances did not demand individual land holdings on this level of exist­ence. Although some 19th century economists held out for private property rights against communalism among primitive people, the facts accumulated by anthropologists have pretty well repudiated their neatly built arguments.

The introduction of agriculture as the principal source of food brought a radical change in the idea of land tenure. Interest now centered in a particular plot of land for the planting and growing season. Property in land really begins with the idea of use and ownership of the produce of the land. Actually, at first, the land itself was parcelled out to the members of the tribe; for a time ownership still resided in the tribe. From here on the evolution of private property in land is a rapidly moving story. Ownership by the chief, family holdings, and serfdom and vassalage are intermediary stages to private ownership of land.

Of chief importance to this description is the transition from the feudal estates to private land tenure. No one held land abso­lutely in his own right under feudal law. Each person held it by the grace of a superior, the king being legally the only true land­holder. In return for the use of the land, serfs and vassals ren­dered such service, and paid in produce, whatever the law at the time required. The decline in feudal holdings came as a result of the following extremely complex social developments; the increase in trade, the rise of towns, the extension of the use of money, and the emergence of new social groups such as mer­chant-employers and wage-workers. Those who retained their land holdings in time came to pay dues or fines in money. These were legally set amounts charged in money values; and even these payments were soon reduced to a mere form so that the holder of the land obtained practically a free title, although vestiges of feudal tenure were still retained. Where serfs or vassals left the land, as many did in the migration to the cities, or where they were resolutely pushed off the land by the application of some law favoring the nobility, title to land reverted to the lord of the manor, who might then lease the land or use it for his own pur­poses. The Inclosure Acts of 18th and 19th century England did away with common lands in the interest of increasing the land under cultivation. Parcels of such common land were granted to individuals with a clear title. This, of course, merely illustrates the universal principle that when land comes under cultivation, communal property passes into private ownership.


Why the private title to land should become a characteristic of some societies is difficult to explain. However, one cannot go far astray in citing some of the most plausible explanations. Of most importance is the demand by individuals themselves that once they have cleared land, improved it, or planted crops which need long periods of care or which produce perennially, they should be guaranteed possession. The increase in population which creates a scarcity in land, leads to a demand for more cul­tivated land, and to an effort to preserve for oneself and one's children the right to living space and maintenance area. This factor is likewise responsible in no small measure for the payment of rent. Ethical considerations are frequently raised in connection with the private ownership of land and the rent which owners exact for its use. These arrangements have evolved as a process of adjustment to existing conditions. That someone thinks they are good or bad is apparently of little consequence. Only when such social devices prove inadequate or harmful to community purposes will they tend to disappear.